Bringing back a better Congress
Seeing the U.S. Capitol during Joe Biden’s inauguration, cleaned up and safeguarded after the Trump insurrection mob attack and destruction, took me back to the Congress I was privileged to witness first-hand too long ago.
As a cockeyed Midwestern optimist, I hope the lesson from both the insurrection and inauguration is that Biden-style bipartisan cooperation can trump Pyrrhic political combat.
Looking back to my personal experience with Congress, I believe the Biden healing is possible. Here’s why:
My first encounter with Congress was when I arrived in DC in the mid-1980s to be the “Washington correspondent” for an unknown and later defunct magazine covering the Pentagon.
I rented a cheap 400sf walkup studio on a derelict corner in a “bad” neighborhood on Capitol Hill. The city buses with their upward exhaust pipes roared constantly beneath my windows as I tried to type my stories for impatient editors. The pay phone outside the bodega on the ground floor was busy and loud all night as I tried to sleep.
Yet my best memory is from my first July 4th in DC when I walked a few blocks to sit on the Capitol steps to watch the fireworks burst over the Washington monument accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.
David Byrne’s line from “Once in a Lifetime” came to mind as I sat there: “How did I get here?”
I asked again a year later when I found myself right in the Capitol.
Not as a reporter or tourist, but in Congress.
Somehow I had been recommended to a Republican Congresswoman to be her press aide. Somehow — while I’m a Democrat and had zero experience for the job — she hired me.
So there I was, madly dashing up and down the Capitol steps trying to keep up with her incessant energy, frantically getting lost in the maze of halls and warrens, writing press statements and releases and weekly radio scripts, managing post-State of the Union press scrums in Statuary Hall, and doing whatever press aides do.
I was harried and humbled by my ineptitude, wondering like David Byrne, “How do I work this?” And always worried someone would ask, “How did he get here?”
Today like many decent Americans, I’m shocked and appalled beyond comprehension by the words and pictures from the January 6 violent mob invasion, ransacking, destruction and desecration of our Capitol. Incited no less than by the President of the United States.
Like many others I’m also moved by the words and pictures of unity from the Capitol on January 20. Not just Biden’s genuine heartfelt address, but also the bipartisan crowd of America’s top leaders arrayed behind him.
I’m hopeful Biden’s inauguration crowd can remain literally behind Biden to heal our nation’s festering wounds.
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in our souls, Emily Dickinson hoped. Hope persists like the tiniest birds do against the most violent storms. Like democracy, built on hope, does.
Which brings me back to my Congresswoman.
When I worked for her in the late ‘80s, government was divided. Ronald Reagan was president. The House and Senate were in Democratic control.
Partisan sparks flew over the Senate rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and the Iran-Contra affair.
The ’88 presidential race, GHW Bush versus Michael Dukakis, ushered in a new era of ugly, divisive, take-no-prisoners, zero-sum, divide-to-conquer politics with Lee Atwater’s racial “wedge issues” featuring the Willie Horton fear/attack TV ads.
In 1992, Newt Gingrich sharpened the partisan division strategy to retake the House.
Dick Cheney leveraged 9–11 into “are you for or against America?” to take us into another unwinnable war that killed thousands of loyal Americans.
Donald Trump twisted the knife into America’s wounds to feed his needy ego to foment an uncivil war, which led inexorably like day follows night to his insurrection mobs invading and trashing our Capitol and hunting down to possibly hang his own vice president. Real or performative, we’ll never know.
How can Biden and his thin Congressional Democratic majority possibly heal three decades of deliberate, self-serving Republican political division?
I yearn back to my Republican Congresswoman, who served 12 terms in 24 years mostly under divided government.
From my dim and likely optimistic recollection, she tried to bridge three gaps:
The partisan gap
She was a Republican moderate, which was not a pariah or endangered species back then.
She represented a mix of blue-collar factory workers and blue-blood New Englanders and New Yorkers in her district.
She was pro-choice, pro-environment and pro-family — not in the fake Christian way but in supporting child care for working parents. She often crossed her party and the partisan aisle to work with Democrats to craft and pass legislation to benefit all Americans.
Today she might be assaulted at her home or in public by Trump Profa (pro-fascist) mobs screaming “Traitor!” for being a reasonable aka treasonous RINO. But while small she was tough, so likely would slick off the dreck like a duck does rain.
The policy gap
Most Americans want what Biden listed in his inaugural address, “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth.”
But Washington can’t enact policies that please everyone in a diverse democratic republic of 328 million people and places spread over 3.8 million square miles.
So people that hate government policies and regulations really hate their fellow Americans that demanded them.
My Congresswoman tried to explain how Washington works. Instead of pandering and cynically attacking Washington as stupid or corrupt and only she can clean up and fix it.
The knowledge gap
She tried to inform her constituents to help them understand the government they’re governing.
I never saw her parrot or pander to falsehoods to feed and fuel her constituents’ beliefs to stay in power.
At district town hall meetings, if constituents were misinformed or misled, she would try to set them straight with the facts as she knew them first-hand, even if she didn’t like the facts.
Of course, my Congresswoman predated the right-wing media, extremist internet “news” sites, the conspiracy dark web, and the social-media rabble rousers and bottom-feeders that fueled the Capitol insurrection.
She also avoided the decades of Republican gerrymandering to create “safe” GOP seats. Which backfired by creating intra-party fratricide making even decent Republicans act crazy for fear of someone clinically crazy primarying them.
Perhaps I recall my Congresswoman through rosy retrospectacles.
But hope is the thing with feathers. It “sings the tune without the words — and never stops — at all.”
As a hopeful lad by nature, I can only hope Biden prevails for hope’s sake.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.